Libya: Benghazi’s new Coptic church has been set on fire, burned or burned out

My social media monitors picked up that @libyanproud had reported: ‘Coptic Church in Benghazi burned in retaliation to the Libyan flag burning at the Libyan embassy in Cairo’. I saw the photo and shared the news. And the building certainly has suffered arson. But the question of whether it was “set on fire”, “burned” or “burned out” has not been answered yet. And that highlights the (both historically and emotionally) awkward problem of describing damage and destruction.

(MT @libyanproud Benghazi Coptic church burned in retaliation for Cairo Libyan embassy flag’s burning v @Eljarh)

Seemingly, the initial news was already out-of-date. Mohamed Eljarh (@Eljarh) gave me ‘accurate info from the ground’ and I shared that. ‘Coptic church of central #Benghazi is not burned.’

Gerard Verron (@gerard_verron), who lives locally and says it’s a ‘calm and peaceful neighborhood’, reported that ‘some thugs‘ had got into the new Coptic church and ‘started to burn furniture’ on the first floor, but neighbours had seen the smoke, ‘stopped them immediately and kicked them out’.

(Libya: thugs burned furniture, but neighbours stopped them; Coptic church ‘slightly damaged‘ @gerard_verron v @Eljarh)

Problems in describing damage and destruction

In my research, I had to assess damage and destruction of domestic, commercial, religious, political, cultural and community property; and witnesses, cultural heritage workers, historians, journalists and activists used innumerable words to describe that material violence. Objects and buildings were attacked, harmed, damaged, broken and smashed; vandalised, desecrated, ransacked, wrecked and ruined; burned, burned out and gutted; torn apart, torn down, demolished, destroyed, obliterated; razed, razed down, razed to the ground…

Sometimes, sources would use half-a-dozen words to describe the same thing; sometimes, they would use the same word to describe half-a-dozen different things. Even if they acknowledged that “other” communities had suffered as well, some sources would describe “their own” community’s still-standing buildings as completely “destroyed”, but would describe the other community’s still-standing buildings as merely “damaged”. Some well-meaning people tried to downplay all past violence in order to minimise the risk of any future violence.

I believe it’s possible to distinguish between “damaged” (but whole) buildings, “destroyed” (but identifiable) buildings and “razed” buildings. And I believe, in the long-term interests of trust and reconciliation, it’s valuable to report damage and destruction accurately, even if it requires us to report very bad news (though I would not not condemn people who “managed the truth” in order to minimise any immediate danger to themselves or others).

But it’s difficult to satisfy everyone with any use of “severely damaged” or “partially destroyed”. And it may be impossible to establish satisfactory distinctions between “set on fire”, “burned” and “burned out” (or “gutted”).

Was the new Coptic church in Benghazi slightly damaged or completely gutted?

Verron felt aggrieved by the language; according to Verron, the church was ‘not burned, but only slightly damaged by a limited fire‘. However, the Libya Herald (@libyaherald) said that the church had been ‘gutted [burned out inside]’; and al Jazeera Arabic had a good (still exterior) photograph of the building (via Mariam Addarrat (@Ummustafa78), where the church looked like it had been gutted.

(The Libya Herald also noted that it was the ‘second attack in a fortnight on the church’; in the first, ‘hardline Islamists’ had assaulted two priests. So while the neighbourhood may be calm (generally), it is not (entirely) peaceful.)

(Libya: Coptic church ‘slightly damaged’ @gerard_verron / ‘gutted’ @libyaherald c @Eljarh)

Libyan youths’ condemnation of desecration of churches and mosques: too dangerous to document?

(Libyan youth scripted video vs church&mosque desecration; it didn’t get made; @Naziha10 fears ‘perhaps this idea was2risky‘ v @LibyanTweep)

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